Nouvelles frontières: Beginning a look into French Chicago

This semester, this blog will primarily follow my efforts to create a research paper of 25-30 pages on the French community in Chicago during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

The French have long been confined to Chicago’s past. Marquette, LaSalle, Joliet – these names are of the 17th century, and speak to a Chicago that these men never knew, beyond some thoughts for the future of a swampy portage area. A few students of Chicago history will note that the city’s first permanent Western resident was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a mixed Frenchman who settled in the Chicago area around 1790. After du Sable though, the French seem to fall out of the Chicago story.

The French were not present in large numbers relative to the Anglo population in North America. When the British gained control of the Illinois Territory in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, many French speakers left the territory. Still, significant numbers remained through into the nineteenth century. When Chicago was incorporated in 1833 as a town, the French formed a significant portion of the population. This significance is further amplified in the city’s Catholic history: when the first parish, St. Mary’s, was founded in that same year, it was done so by request of the 130 odd Catholics living in Chicago. The majority of these families and persons were French. The first pastor of St. Mary’s was Jean Marie Irenee St. Cyr. The Church history of Chicago begins with the French, from the region’s first explorer down to the first parish.

Yet the French legacy in the city can be rather hard to come by, which seems intriguing given their role in its early history. In looking for memories of the French in Chicago, one should not expect to find a “Little France”. The French population was dwarfed by other ethnicities but it was never erased completely. The French remained throughout the 1800s and well into the 1900s, buttressed by the arrival of French-Canadians beginning in the 1840s and 50s. They may not have been a dominant group, but they were present though the decades. While neighborhoods cannot be tied solely to the French, their catholic faith provides evidence of where they lived and prayed. The French parishes of Chicago were centers of one of the city’s least well-known minorities, and though none of these churches are French today and quite a few are closed, the buildings – and the parish records – still stand.

In all honesty, I’m still working out how to proceed with my research. I have identified a number of secondary sources which may be of some use in examining the broader French origins in Illinois and early America. For primary sources I benefit from the extensive record keeping abilities of the Archdiocese. St. Louis, St. Jean Baptiste, St. Louis de France are closed, but their records should still be available. Sacred Heart and Notre Dame are still active parishes. St. Mary’s may have some material on their earliest French parishioners, and Old St. Pat’s briefly housed a French community in their basement. Articles related to the French Catholic community are of interest: I’ve found a jubilee celebration book from Notre Dame which provides great information both on the wider community and the specific parish, information I’d struggle to find elsewhere. There is also a Chicago based French newspaper that ran from 1905 to 1919 that will likely be of great use to me. Added to all of this will be newspaper reports from the native Chicago press and their perceptions of the French community, in whatever function I can find.

I’ll make greater headway with my sources after going to the Archdiocese archives (and after meeting with a research librarian) but as for what exactly I’m looking to write on, I have a few ideas:

  1. How did the French Catholic community define itself within Chicago? Were there specific practices (like Taizé prayer), monuments, or focus points that helped the French strengthen their parishes?
  2. How were the French perceived by other ethnic groups within Chicago? How were they viewed by the Church?
  3. How did the French cope with perennially being outnumbered within the city? How did they handle the loss of their parishes to other ethnic groups like the Irish or Germans?
  4. How did the religious orders – like The Sisters of the Sacred Heart, or the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament at Notre Dame de Chicago – affect the community?
  5. What was the role of the Chicago French community in supporting the memory and legacy of early explorers like Marquette, or other early American Church figures like the North American martyrs?

These questions will be refined as I begin to get a better understanding of the community and of my own intentions. I genuinely feel as though this topic is interesting and worth exploring. I only hope that I am able to fully do it justice and craft a thoughtful and insightful look at Chicago’s first ethnic community.


One thought on “Nouvelles frontières: Beginning a look into French Chicago

  1. Pingback: And we’re back … – Ramonat Seminar 2015

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